What parents need to know about 'dry drowning' and how to keep kids safe

PHOTO: The New Paper

A child might seem perfectly fine after getting out of a pool, and then, unexpectedly, starts to have problem breathing minutes or hours later. In the worst-case scenario, death strikes.

The thought that a child could "drown" on dry land after having gulped down a bit of water while swimming terrifies parents after several recent cases of suspected 'dry drowning' or 'secondary drowning' in US made headlines in the western media.

You probably have not heard of these two terms, which are often used interchangeably to describe a very serious but little-known medical condition that's hard to spot.

Anyway, the first case involving a child was tragic: Frankie Delgado, 4, died a week after swimming on June 3 in Texas. In St Louis, three such drownings claimed the lives of metro area teenagers, reported KSDK TV.

In Colorado, a father recognised the symptoms in his son and saved his life in the nick of time.

Usually, the term 'dry drowning' is used loosely to include 'secondary drowning' although both are actually different conditions.

Dry drowning usually happens soon after exiting the water, but with secondary drowning, there can be a delay of up to 24 hours before the person shows signs of distress.

- Mark R. Zonfrillo, M.D., MSCE

Explaining the difference between the two, Mark R. Zonfrillo, M.D., MSCE, attending physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia told Parents website: Dry drowning usually happens soon after exiting the water, but with secondary drowning, there can be a delay of up to 24 hours before the person shows signs of distress.

But there's an additional danger with dry drowning - it could lead to secondary drowning, a deadly condition that's hard to identify if you don't know what to look for, a medical director of the emergency centre at Johns Hopkin's All Children's Hospital told HuffPost.

Here's how parents can spot signs of dry drowning and how they can prevent it.


1. Don't dismiss near-drowning experience and the splash of waves

Even a little bit of water getting inside the lungs can be dangerous. The child could have taken in water from from say, a near-drowning experience or even something as seemingly safe like being tossed around by waves, said Dr. Wassam Rahman in HuffPost.

In the hours following, the lungs respond to the trapped water by swelling, as it begins to pool with the body's own water, the medical director explained the delayed reaction leading up to secondary drowning.

Sooner or later, the water in the lungs makes it hard for the body to produce oxygen. Oxygen blood levels eventually drop, which can cause a slowed heart rate and, in rare cases, cardiac arrest.

2. Look out for coughs and breathing difficulty

If a child develops a cough with increased work of breathing a few hours after swimming, or cannot catch his breath, something might be wrong. Get medical help immediately.

If you see rapid shallow breathing, nostril flaring with each breath or a retracting gap above the collarbone when a child breathes, it means the breathing is not normal, said Dr Sarah Denny, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Injury, Violence & Poison Prevention on Parents website.

3. The child has chest pain and vomits

Chest pain and vomiting in the hours after a child has swallowed a large amount of water can also be signs of secondary drowning, according to the American Osteopathic Association.

4, The child is easily irritated, forgetful, sleepy or tired

It could mean not enough oxygen is getting into to the blood. If you see any of these signs, get medical attention immediately as any delay can worsen the outcome, said Dr Rahman. Don't put the child to bed unless the doctor says it's okay to do so.


1. Send your kid for swimming lessons

Kids who are adept at swimming, knowing how to float and tread are less likely to go under and take in water. Around age 4 is a good time to start, recommends Parents website.

2. Ensure close supervision

Pay attention to kids closely in and around the water and remind them on pool safety rules. Check out your kid if you notice any signs of trouble breathing.

3. Follow water safety measures

Pools should have four-sided fencing around them to prevent kids from wandering into the water on their own. Never leave standing water where a child could get into it, whether it's a bathtub or a small inflatable one.


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